A collage from a young Vanuatu woman's childhood photos: preparing coconut, in a market, with a dog, leaning against a brightly-painted wall.
Kali Regenvanu, in Vanuatu (Photos: Supplied)

A first look inside the first-ever anthology of writing by Vanuatu women

Tomorrow Mikaela Nyman and Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen launch their book Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology, which brings together poetry, fiction, essay, memoir, and song, by three generations of women.

The following essay is by 20-year-old student Kali Regenvanu. It appears near the end of the book, bringing together threads that are woven throughout: railing against entrenched sexism, violence, addiction and poverty.

A letter to Vanuatu: Unkept promises

Vanuatu, you have taken from me.

You have stolen from me my rightful property: my freedom. You have taken it and altered it beyond recognition, twisting it into free doom. You have twisted this Pacific paradise into an unholy hell for women, soaked in misery from decades of our tears – the tears of the women you have crushed under your weight.

Vanuatu, though banning plastic straws has earned you the global title of underdog David to the world’s Goliath, do not fool yourself. Whereas banning straws is a step towards a sunny horizon, your history of wrongdoing to those who live within you places you a hundred steps behind. How can you sleep at night, knowing our nation cares more for the wellbeing of distant beings in the ocean than your very own kin? The ones that gave you life without whom you would not exist.

Vanuatu, tell me why our local news is littered with the rape, abuse and killing of women and girls. As if it’s normal. The men of our nation are disturbingly ignorant to read these bone-chilling stories each and every day and do absolutely nothing about it. Are we not all equally human? Or have the men in our nation evolved into robots, mechanical beings without hearts? How are you so comfortable in your misogyny that you can happily ignore us women?

Photographs of two women, flanking a book cover.

Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen and Mikaela Nyman, with the groundbreaking anthology they edited (Photo of Rebecca: Supplied; of Mikaela: Ebony Lamb)

You stick your fingers into your ears while we scream for help. 

You squeeze your eyes shut when you see us suffer.

You tie your hands behind your back when we ask you to free us from our shackles. 

You clamp your mouth shut when you’re given the opportunity to speak up.

You choose ignorance.

And when you choose ignorance, you leave us to suffer, tormented by your inaction.

While you sit on your throne and sip the sweet nectar of power and carelessness, we lie crippled and broken at your feet. A mere shell of who we could be, if you gave us the chance.

Wings clipped and dreams shot down.

Dear Vanuatu, it has become increasingly clear that you are afraid of us. You try to contain us like a deadly virus, to make us submit like dogs. You are afraid because you see our potential and our power. Though you attempt again and again to brainwash us with your dull male chauvinism and tacky paternalistic power structures, we have vision that goes beyond your feeble-minded sight. We will unlearn all the lessons that you have forced upon us in your medieval school of thought.

Every lesson made to 

Suppress

Humiliate 

Silence

Censor

Muzzle

Blame 

And

Disrespect

will be discontinued. These lessons are not only outdated, they never should have existed in the first place.

No longer will we be controlled by you. Vanuatu, you owe us humanity and correction. No more violence, no more intimidation. No more incompetent government officials. No more ignorance. No more pretending.

Vanuatu, you have had years to do the right thing and you have not. Snap out of it. The women of Vanuatu are beyond exhausted by your ineptitude. As a nation we represent a gross violation of human rights and wellbeing. The ranking of Vanuatu as the happiest place on Earth was a bright cover-up, a beautiful lie fed to us to make women believe we are lucky to live on these “heavenly” islands. Vanuatu is the happiest place on Earth for the sexist, the power-hungry and cruel. It is the happiest place on Earth to the blissfully and stupidly unaware.

We are not a democracy, a place of freedom and choice. The only choice we as women are given is to be silent and submissive housewives, or to be shunned and shamed by society.

How is it fair that I am afraid to walk down my very own street? 

Afraid as I lie in my bed?

Afraid for my sister to live and to breathe in Vanuatu’s poisoned air?

So long as there is discrimination, violence and cruelty against women, I cannot love the sea that laps our rich black sand beaches; I cannot love the island breeze on a hot day. I cannot love the beauty here with all this ugliness. Our beautiful waters have been tainted by the oil spill that is toxic masculinity and patriarchy, choking those that should be able to thrive here.

To hell with your straws. Fix your human rights violations.

We are in crisis. This is not a small obstacle, a small hurdle in the grand scheme of life. This is a lifelong tragedy that has blocked any sense of normality and fairness for women.

It must be nice to be a man and have the option not to care.

Our national anthem states “yumi strong mo yumi fri / we are strong and we are free” and yet we aren’t. Vanuatu, hold to your promise of fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual.

Not tomorrow, not in a month, not in a year and not in a decade. 

Today.

Now.

Or don’t bother handing out promises you had no intention of keeping. 

 

Additional note from Regenvanu:

I currently live in Nova Scotia, on the East Coast of Canada and just finished my first year of university here. I started my first semester studying health sciences, but I changed to a double major in Women and Gender Studies and Sociology because it suits my passions in social justice much more. As a newborn baby, my family and I lived in Vanuatu for a short time before moving to Canada. We eventually moved back to Vanuatu when I was 11, so I spent most of my formative years as a young woman growing up in Port-Vila. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic I haven’t been able to go back to Vanuatu since August of 2019.

Vanuatu has represented many different things for me; it has represented the wonderful and beautiful, like important connections to family as well as the challenging, problematic patriarchal structures that exist and govern the lives of women and girls in Vanuatu. Growing up in Vanuatu pushed me to activism and social justice, as I was constantly faced with sexism, racism, homophobia and classism, through my own experiences as well as the experiences of others. I think it is important to simultaneously recognise the beauty of Vanuatu while also admitting to (and actively trying to challenge) the harsh reality that marginalised groups, like women, face every day living there. I wrote this piece not because I want to condemn Vanuatu and all that it represents. The reality is quite the opposite: I love Vanuatu deeply and it crushes me to see it fall deeper and deeper into the harsh realities of sexism and male violence every day that these issues are not addressed.

I feel very grateful that my work is being published in the anthology alongside so many other talented women, and I look forward to the important conversations that will undoubtedly emerge from all of the pieces in the anthology.

Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology, edited by Mikaela Nyman and Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen (Victoria University Press, $30) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington




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